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Why do we think that debate is worthwhile?

For a few years now, the phrase ‘change my mind’ has signalled that you have found a hill to die on. It can follow an inoffensive statement and people will laugh at the ironic obstinance. What I find more ironic, however, is that we communicate an unwillingness to think differently with an open invitation to be convinced of another viewpoint. Why call for a dialogue when you have no intention of modifying your stance? 

In order to answer that question, let’s examine the origin of this meme: a Youtube debate series named after this phrase, run by a man known as Steven Crowder. Steven is, first and foremost, a bigot and a bully. This is contextually important when we analyze the format and goals of Change My Mind as a show.

CMM begins with Crowder setting up a desk with his sign (something like “Rape Culture is a Myth: Change My Mind”) on a street or a college campus. He then argues with strangers who pass by, never having anticipated that they would be debating that day. Meanwhile, Crowder has prepared for days beforehand, brought a folder of ‘facts’, and he gets to edit the footage of their encounter.

Immediately, there is the question: if Crowder had a genuine desire to learn, why isn’t he debating someone with expertise, or even preparation? Nonetheless, the sign implies that Crowder is looking to learn, not to argue a point. Crowder himself positions this project as truth seeking—allowing his ideas to be tested against opposition. 

Once someone takes the bait, it becomes obvious that Crowder’s goal was not to listen, but to validate his own beliefs. The discussion quickly devolves into an argument, where Crowder drops any pretense of listening to others. Crowder tends to ‘win’ his debates—when they are so weighted in his favour, it would be hard not to. However, there is one example of Crowder losing the upper hand. Unsurprisingly, it was conducted live, rather than the usual, edited format. Here, we see Crowder losing ground to an opponent who, after running circles around him, uses the word “autistic” in a derogatory sense. Crowder—a man who unashamedly uses slurs on a daily basis—ends the discussion indignantly. Apparently, this was too far. The comments are full of fans confused and disappointed at Crowder’s abrupt change of heart.

The fact that Crowder shut the debate down, at the exact moment when his mind could have been changed, says everything one needs to know about his motivations. Crowder wants a rhetorical punching bag—an easy target to make him and his ideas look better. If they start punching back, Crowder switches the subject or runs away. To my knowledge, Crowder has never changed his mind on the show; the irony of his sign is palpable.

None of this will come as a surprise to someone familiar with Crowder’s work. What’s interesting to note, however, is that many people who laughed at the ‘Change My Mind’ meme have little idea where it came from. Still, they recognize the irony. To me, this suggests that Crowder’s dishonesty is a reflection of debate culture in general. People can see the inherent illogic in the idea that a debate can change minds, without ever having seen Crowder speak. 

This skepticism goes back to an intuitive fact about debating: there is no such thing as a debate between two people who are willing to change their mind. If neither participant was attached to their beliefs, then the debate either wouldn’t happen, or it would become a discussion. Someone would throw out an idea, and you’d analyze it together. If their ideas were compatible, that would become a discussion by the same logic, more often than not. I can’t deny the existence of people who’ll make an argument out of anything, but they’re not worth talking about. 

Fundamentally, debates are about a clash of ideas, the pitting of two irreconcilable concepts against each other. Such a conflict can only occur when the worldviews—foundational beliefs about reality—underpinning these ideas are incompatible. 

A person’s ideas on human nature or ethics, for example, will underpin most of their political beliefs. An opinion is the result of a network of these heuristics, and the ideas which seem illogical to us are, more often than not, rooted in premises which we reject. When two people feel the need to debate an idea, it’s because they think their opponent is missing the truth of the matter. What often goes unconsidered is that their ideas are divergent because neither participant agrees on reality. Even if they don’t realize it, neither person is entering a conversation where they’re likely to change. If they argue the point, neither of them is likely to challenge the others’ biases. Even if they did, I doubt that anyone can dismantle a worldview with their words.

Why, then, do we debate? I can think of two reasons: the first is validation. Debate is, on its face, pretty fun. It is an exercise in mental gymnastics and wordplay; you have to think outside of the box and outsmart your opponent. Moreover, it’s rewarding to defend your views and to feel rational. That is one form of validation. The other, which I find far more toxic, is the kind one gets from “crushing the opposition.” That is, people who debate simply because they enjoy beating others—like Steven Crowder. 

Note that there is an important distinction between debating to win, and feeling happy about success. If someone’s only goal is to win, and they get validation from ‘proving’ that their ideas are superior, they are not in the headspace to entertain or respect others’ ideas. No matter what they are told, their only thought will be ‘how do I use this to win?’ Even a concession will be tactical—used to prove another point while seeming generous. When it is clear that such a debater is losing, they throw around fallacies. Steven Crowder shutting down his debate, contradicting his stated love for freedom of speech, is an example of this. Moving the goalposts, the fallacious strategy of shifting the discussion the moment one starts losing, is another common occurrence. While the goal of a discussion is to win, the debate will be dishonest.

The second reason to debate is naivete. Some people believe in an image of debate which, given what I have pointed out, is unlikely to exist. That is, they see it as a way to discover the truth and to change minds. As was mentioned earlier, however, people are usually defending things which they believe to be unquestionably true. Nobody has the energy to risk an ugly argument, risk losing, or spend energy for a cause they don’t believe in. Because of that, debates rarely change minds; most of the time, people come out of the discussion with the belief that they were misunderstood, and they are correct! That’s not always because their opponent wasn’t listening, but because the debate reflected a deeper, more subconscious conflict of beliefs. Their opponent was never going to understand them, as they live in a different reality. Hence, once two people agree to debate something, you can bet that they’ll get nothing done.

Why, then, is debate held up as necessary or noble? My theory ties back to Steven Crowder: it is convenient for those who want to validate their beliefs. After all, if they argue with someone who has an incompatible mindset, win by their subjective metrics, and their mind goes unchanged, then they’ve affirmed to themselves that their beliefs are superior. Whether or not they’re right is irrelevant, as that is their feeling. This is why, usually, two people leaving a serious argument both feel as though they won. By their own metrics, they did.

This begs the question: how does this benefit Steven Crowder, or any other bully? Why do they perpetuate the idea that debate is about seeking truth? My answer is that winning debates against random college students not only validates them, but also their followers. Crowder, or any pundit, can entrench their beliefs by winning debates. They make alternative ideas seem less appealing by engaging with them in bad faith—misrepresenting their beliefs, making their proponents look bad, et cetera. I shudder to think of how many people came to dislike feminism by watching Ben Shapiro “destroy” college students. Moreover, they convince their audience of the innate truth of their own ideas. When someone engages Crowder on the street, no matter the outcome, he has already won.

So long as debate continues to be glorified in this way, there will be naive people who believe that they can change either Crowder’s mind or those of the people watching (who, more often than not, tune in because they want to see their side win). While ‘reasoned debate’ continues to be treated as a theater where minds change, people like Crowder can exploit the well-intentioned, turning them into useful foils for their own ideas. So long as debate is treated as necessary, they can deride, bully, and insult those who refuse to engage with them. “Debate me” has become a common refrain amongst such people, on the left and the right. If you don’t let them verbally attack you, then you are painted as a coward, an unprincipled person, or both. While this narrative persists, it will benefit malicious sophists, not noble truth seekers.

How do people change their minds without debating, though? Perhaps now is the time to ask yourself how many times you’ve seen someone change their mind with a debate. Not a discussion, or asking a heartfelt question, but an honest, heated argument. In my experience, it isn’t common; I haven’t changed many of my opinions through debating them. Rather, I get curious about other perspectives, try to learn about them, and sometimes realize that I agree. This usually happens when I’m troubled by an issue which doesn’t make sense. For example: I changed my mind on debate after being confused by how people could be demolished in an argument, then not even modify their opinion. Steven Crowder’s horrific failure was, in fact, one of the things that raised this question. I talked to a friend who cared little for debate, realized he was right, and now I’m writing this column. 

What we need to realize, collectively, is that nobody who is genuinely interested in your perspective is going to challenge you to a debate.  If they wanted to understand you, they’d ask you to explain your beliefs—they would have a discussion. Because of that, I’d recommend that we limit ourselves to productive conversations. Talk about ideas with people who you know are speaking in good faith. If you’re worried about changing peoples’ minds, don’t be. I can guarantee that your debating won’t change them. Assuming that what you believe is ‘true’, all they need is contact with reality, and easy access to your point of view. How do you get both of those things? Be the change you want to see, and be willing to answer questions from the genuinely curious. 

Before we go, I want to raise another question: where does the idea that debate is amazing come from, and why do we take it as given? Most of the time, I hear it from bad-faith actors who are angry that they’re being ignored. I can’t even remember the last time I heard an honest, principled person call for a debate. To me, it seems like ‘cancel culture’ all over again: we’ve let malicious people take over the narrative. From one debater to another, let’s save our breath.

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year, and would like to note that competitive debate is fine so long as you recognize that it’s a fun game—not a noble, intellectual pursuit. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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